The original £8m Severn bridge was opened by the Queen on 8 September 1966, heralding a new economic era for South Wales. In celebration, here is an extract from Edging the Estuary by Peter Finch, in which Peter meets the men continuing the traditional method of Lave net fishing on the River Severn, at times directly below the bridge.
About Edging the Estuary:
In the Middle Ages the port of Cardiff stretched from Chepstow to Gower. Peter Finch, archetypal Cardiffian, sets out to explore his heritage, walking the Welsh side of the Severn Estuary and reclaiming his personal memories in addition to discovering the lives of others. And with a detour to Maismore, the highest tidal point of the estuary, he walks the English side too, taking in the differences with Wales, reviving past links and looking at his homeland from abroad. On his journey he sees the estuary as border, a highway for trade and ideas, an industrial zone, and a place where people spend their leisure. Rich in anecdote, evocative in description, Finch’s book takes in villages and cities, power stations and fishermen, castles and caravans, leg-aching walks and deckchairs on the beach.
The Lave Fishing Grounds
The novelist and poet Richard Brautigan went trout fishing in America. There the fish were made of a precious and intelligent metal. Trout steel in the snow-filled rivers. Among them he found the dharma or the Buddha, or love or something. I’d never done any of that. I’d never really thought much about fishing anyway other than logging that lots of people did it. Blokes in wool hats sitting on piers, pond sides, river edges waiting and on their faces that distant look. It seemed all about waiting. And I couldn’t be doing with that.
At the end of Black Rock Road, to the east of Sudbrook, is the small park the council has created facing Black Rock. In a corner is the Black Rock Lave Net Heritage Fishery’s hut. Hand built in local stone. A salmon in wrought iron adorns the front. For most of the year the hut is closed and locked but today it’s not. Martin Morgan, a fifty-year-old steelworker from Undy, is in action out front. Spread on the grass he has replicas of the fishtraps that have been used in these waters since medieval times. They’ve now been banned by the Environment Agency in an attempt to conserve fish stocks. “There used to be other methods of fish catching that are gone too,” Martin tells me. “Stock boats, drift nets, tuck nets. Those ways are over.”
The putt, a great ten-foot-long assemblage of bent willow in the shape of an open-mouthed giant cone, is the older method. The example Martin shows me is a replica made from an ancient original pulled from the river muds. These things go back to the eleventh century. The cone would be pegged to the river bed facing an ebb tide and once a salmon had swum in, it couldn’t then get back out.
Also on show are replicas of putchers – smaller five-foot cones made originally of woven hazel or willow but from the 50s onwards of aluminium mesh.These would be assembled in racks known as engines with sometimes a hundred or more in a single array. These would be strung out across the river like radar sets. Salmon was the target but they also caught whitefish and eels and anything else that drifted in.
These were the fixed engines, the fish henges. In the sixteenth century, Rawlins White, the Cardiff martyr, operated something similar at the Rhymney River mouth. The remains of ancient putcher racks have been discovered by estuarial archaeologists in waders, stepping through the glutinous mud between the river’s rapid tides. The largest, containing some fifteen hundred baskets swung out into the waters opposite Goldcliff.
The archaeologist J.R.L. Allen has used aerial photographs of the Estuary to uncover a complex pattern of fish traps dating from Mesolithic times to virtually the present day. His shots show putcher lines running just off the river shores like the claw prints of giant birds. Further out are the remains of rod and wattle fencing, formed into complexes of stone and woodposted weir. Fish dams, intertidal fish pools, fish gullies. Fish capture has gone on in these waters for thousands of years. But it’s all banned now. Regarded as being as bad as fishing with dynamite. All that’s left are the lave fishers. Eight of them. The Environment Agency refuses to issue any more licences.
Lave fishing uses large Y-shaped nets each individually made by the fisherman. The net has willow arms known as rimes hinged onto a stout handle called the rock staff, made of ash. Fishermen wade into an outgoing tide and wait. They can stand for hours with the Severn’s tides falling around them. They call this cowering. Much more exciting is stalking, where the fisherman spots a fish moving over the sandbanks and gives chase.
Caught fish are dispatched with a short wooden baton known as a knocker. Weights are anything from five to seventeen pounds. The record was held by Martin’s great grandfather. He landed a monster that weighed in at fifty-six pounds. There’s a silver-coloured replica back at the hut. The net they also knit themselves. It was once made of hemp. Smacker Williams, in Sudbrook in the 1960s, could knit a single net in a day. That was going some. When he went, the practice died out, but Martin’s fishermen have revived it. They use nylon cord today.
At the Heritage Fishery they are all lave fishermen, although as the season is so short they double up for the rest of the year with rod and line. They used to fish from February right through until October but the Environment Agency have now got them down to a mere three months. 1st June to the 31st August. They’re allowed to catch an absolute total of fifteen fish, five a month, and that’s it. Not much. Martin thinks the Agency would be happiest if it could close the lave fishermen down.
The Agency is at odds with the Heritage authorities who see the Black Rock fishermen as a relic of Wales’ traditional past and something to be encouraged. Martin tells me that last week they had a camera team along from Wedi Saith who brought a Teifi coracle fisherman with them to compare traditions. We’re out on the mud now, walking through the glutinous slime to get into the fishermen’s tiny boat. “You take care,” says Martin. “We’ve had camera crews slip here and go sprawling. They always somehow manage to save their equipment, though.” In my Homebase green wellingtons I take it slow.
The fishing grounds all have names that don’t appear on most maps. Grandstand, The Hole, The Monkey Tump, Lighthouse Vere, The Marl, The Looby and Gruggy. We row west of the Second Severn Crossing to anchor in waters that are moving at around five knots and are at least eight feet deep. “This new bridge was built right across our traditional fishing grounds,” Martin tells me.We watch his brother Richard in the distance striding along the shoreline, net over his shoulder. “It’s made the mudbanks shift and created new ones but we can still fish.”
He and Tim Bevan, a tinplate printer from Sudbrook, are in the water now, chest deep, nets below the surface, that look of concentrated desire mixed with endless patience on their faces. Catching fish is all a matter of getting the wind in the right place and the spring tide flowing. “Are things right today?” I ask. “Could be.” But in the end it turns out they’re not.
During the two-hour window between tide ebb and flow I watch the water drop more than four feet. Fields of rocks emerge around me. Hundreds of boulders running in all directions like this was the Russian Steppes. The brown water slows from a rush to a drifting crawl.You can hear the muted traffic roar on the bridge high above. But the water itself is silent. The boat shifts on its anchor mooring then bumps against rocks below. Martin has walked off hundreds of yards into the distance. His brother, once separated from us by a river depth too great to navigate, now strides across, net over his shoulders, nothing caught where he was either.
Looking west the river runs off into a silver distance that points right out into the Atlantic. You’d think there’d be ship traffic but there is none. Nothing floats by. Just the ripples. “It would have been better if we’d caught something,” says Martin. But half of fishing is the activity itself. Richard Fox and Rob Evans, two other Lave Fisherman in action today have been working the river east of the bridge. “They’ve not been with us that long,” says Martin. “And they’re the only two who haven’t caught their first fish.We’ve two more days left. They’ll be out tonight, 2.00 am, fishing in the dark, just to catch up.”
We’re back on shore now. The fishiest thing we’d seen all day was a tiny mullet about five inches long that Tim had in his net and then threw back. I missed that, too busy taking photos of English coast, power stations, or Sudbrook from the estuary distance, pumping station and the Seven Tunnel Great Spring outfall, still rushing fresh water into the river after all these years.
The EU control that limits catches is contained in Annex 11 of the EC Habitats Directive (council directive 92/43/EEC). It ripples off the tongue. But irrelevant today. Down the pub now, yes.
Claim 20% off when you join the Seren Book Club